Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 23 August 2010

Pakistan floods confirm climate crisis

The flooding of Pakistan, affecting 20 million people, is linked to climate change and a sign of more calamities to come.


For those who still doubt that climate change is a real problem, the plight of Pakistan today should serve as a lesson.  The floods there have been simply devastating.

Up to 20 million people are affected.  900,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged, and 4.6 million people are homeless in just two provinces. 6.5 million people are in need of water, food and medicines. 

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 70% of bridges and roads have been destroyed.

The agricultural sector has been most hit, with over 17 million acres of farmland flooded, more than 200,000 livestock killed, and most of the cotton and wheat crops has been lost.

The Pakistan flood is one of the worst natural calamities in modern history. The scale of the disaster in terms of people affected, loss of property and geographical area is said to be worse than the effects of the 2004 Asian tsunami and the January 2010 Haiti earthquake combined, although at 1,600 the number of persons killed have been less.

John Holmes, the chief UN humanitarian affairs official, said it was a disaster “which has affected many more people than I have ever seen.”

Last week at the United Nations in New York, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi described the floods as “a natural calamity of unprecedented proportions.”

The floods are also now attributed to climate change.  It is often not easy to attribute a weather-related event to the climate change phenomenon, and there is a debate whether disasters such as the 2005 tsunami, the typhoons that struck the Philippines last year or the Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans are linked to climate change.

The Pakistan floods are partly blamed on such domestic factors as the chopping of forests and the mismanagement of land and rivers. However, the Pakistan government has mainly attributed the catastrophe to climate change. 

The Foreign Minister stressed that climate change has become a reality for 170 million Pakistanis and that the present situation confirms the country's “always extreme vulnerability” to the adverse impacts of climate change.

The point on vulnerability is important because there is a recent tendency in the climate negotiations to consider only certain categories of countries (the least developed countries and the small island developing states) as being especially vulnerable to climate change. 

Other countries including Pakistan, Nicaragua and other Central American countries (which have been affected by hurricanes), have staked a claim that they too are extremely vulnerable and have questioned the criteria by which countries are to be termed “vulnerable.”

A senior scientist at the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation, which is the UN's premier scientific body dealing with climate issues, has clearly linked the Pakistan floods to climate change.

According to Nathanial Gronewold of ClimateWire, in an article published in New York Times, scientists at the WMO say there is no doubt that higher Atlantic Ocean temperatures contributed to the floods. 

Atmospheric anomalies that led to the floods are also directly related to the same weather phenomena that a caused the record heat wave in Russia and flooding and mudslides in western China, said Ghassem Asrar, director of the WMO's World Climate Research Programme. He added that Pakistan's misery is just a sign of more to come.

"There's no doubt that clearly the climate change is contributing, a major contributing factor," Asrar said in an interview with Gronewold.   "We cannot definitely use one case to kind of establish precedents, but there are a few facts that point towards climate change as having to do with this."

The record high surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean resulted in a huge volume of evaporated moisture entering the atmosphere and drift over the affected area. At the same time, an abnormal airflow pattern prevented the saturated clouds from spreading over a larger area, concentrating the rains in Pakistan's watershed, according to Gronewold's article.

It quotes Asrar as saying that the higher-than-average Atlantic temperatures and conditions made ripe by the La Niña cycle of lower temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean created the perfect conditions for the rains.

The disaster was made worse by deforestation and land-use changes in the affected areas, but Asrar insisted that the sheer volume of precipitation absorbed by clouds and then dumped on Pakistan is chiefly to blame.

The flooding started at the end of July and accelerated over August, affecting almost all of the North and most of the central region.  At the most intense period, about a foot of rain fell over a 36-hour period, and some areas received 180 percent of the precipitation expected in a normal monsoon cycle.  

The water level of the Indus River also reached its highest level in 110 years since records were kept.

According to Gronewold, climate scientists say this year's summer is one of the hottest ever, with high temperatures breaking records across the United States, Europe and Central Asia.

“Consequently, the surface of the Atlantic has also been much warmer than usual. The IPCC assessment reports note that higher ocean temperatures lead to more water vapor entering the atmosphere. This fact, Asrar said, already pointed toward a stronger than usual monsoon season in store for South Asia.

Normal air patterns would have dispersed this precipitation over as wide an area as possible. But an abnormal airflow caused by La Niña created a ridge of pressure that blocked the warm, saturated air from moving west to east normally, Asrar said.

“This same ridge prevented the rains from reaching western Russia, where a severe drought has been blamed for raging wildfires and the destruction of 20 percent of the wheat crop there. And with nowhere else to go, Pakistan and China's far west bore the brunt when the clouds became too saturated with moisture and opened up.

"Basically, this rift that was forming blocked the warm air moving from west to east, and then, on the other side, this air that was super saturated with water vapor had to precipitate all this excess water that was in the atmosphere, which created this unprecedented amount of rain in short period of time," Asrar explained. "The connecting factor is that clearly the warming is a driver for all these events."

International aid is being mobilised for Pakistan, with almost US$500 million raised so far following a UN appeal.  But the estimates of what is needed are far higher.

Pakistan's foreign minister has said US$2 billion is required for agriculture alone, and the economist A.B. Shahid estimates that  US$3 billion is needed just to rebuild homes and US$7 billion to restore infrastructure (roads, bridges, canals, government offices).

At present there is no international system for financing countries affected by climate change or extreme weather events, and countries like Pakistan have to rely on donations.

The Pakistan flood tragedy should spur policy makers and politicians to take the climate crisis more seriously and to quickly come up with a financing system to assist countries affected by climate change.